Originality is Overrated: The Case for Copying Business Ideas

Written by Guan

When it comes to deciding on product ideas to work on, there usually is an overwhelming urge for creatives types and first-time software entrepreneurs to build an original product that will make it stand out.

In this essay, I'm going to dispel the notion that you should strive for your product ideas to be truly original. I'll be sharing my research and findings on how to decide on which idea you should commit to.

Let's start with this question: Can your ideas be completely original at all?

1. Good artists copy, great artists steal

While the origin of the phrase has been attributed to Pablo Picasso, the person who has best fleshed out its meaning for me was New York Times bestselling author Austin Kleon. In his book, Steal Like An Artist, he writes: "All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original".

Mark Ronson, who you probably know from the Grammy award-winning hit song, "Uptown Funk", also had this to say about copying ideas in his TED talk on music sampling: "In music, we take something that we love and build on it".

Artists learn by copying, and borrow elements from their samples to make it better, and turn it into something of their own creation. I feel we can also apply this way of thinking to how we think about business and product ideas.

Copying doesn't mean not innovating

In Ronson's TED talk, he illustrated how a single song could be separately sampled by different artists over generations, yet still produce hits recognized as a song in their own right each time, as work created by that artist. Clearly, there's a dash of magic that's being added to the original which makes the final product much different than before.

That magic is the innovation that you bring to the idea you're copying.

“So, don’t clone a product idea wholesale.”

Copying an existing idea does not mean that there is also zero innovation on your part. As you would expect, a straight clone of a product is going to be uninspiring for both its creators and the product's intended audience. Andrew Chen, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz writes in his blog post, Minimize your Time to Product/Market Fit: "You might think that cloning is great- but be aware that a 100% clone has many weaknesses ... thus, I don’t think you ever want to do a full clone".

Like art, your work is likely not going to be meaningful or successful if your product is an exact copy of something that already exists.

Using the classic what-sets-Apple-apart argument, Apple has been known to be the type of technology company to not be the first to come up with and produce any single type of device (say, smartphones, tablets or the MP3 player). But, when it finally comes around to executing on it, their approach and delivery of their product blows the competition out of the water.

So, don’t clone a product idea wholesale.

Approaches to reinventing ideas

With that out of the way, how then, are we to go about copying ideas without them turning out to be clones of the original? How are we to determine where that sweet spot between copying and being original is? Here are two ways we can methodically determine these answers:

First, the Andrew Chen blog post quoted above goes on to describe how startups can try to achieve this balance. He writes: “Instead, you want to keep the fundamentals the same (80%) while substantially reinventing 20% of the product”. He also goes on to explain that it’s crucial to pick the right 20% to reinvent: “Ideally the differentiation is baked deeply into the core of the product, not out on the edges. Something the end user can see and feel within the first 30 seconds of using the product”.

The other method to achieve this is to use the Blue Ocean Strategy approach. In brief, the strategy works by looking across and beyond traditional alternatives for a particular type of product or service, and supplementing it with the benefits that only the alternative is able to provide, thus creating a new category of product that enjoys little competition. I highly, highly recommend reading the book for in-depth knowledge on how to employ this strategy for evaluating and coming up with product ideas.

Both methods adopt a style of "remix"-ing an existing idea, by first forming the base of the your new idea with it, and then adapting or stylizing the idea so that its approach and presentation are radically reinvented.

The idea for my mind-mapping product, WriteMapper, was born from Blue Ocean strategizing, combining the best features of a mind-mapping app and a writing app, that truly allows it to exists in a class of its own.

2. It's likely not up to you anyway

Us software developers might sometimes identify more so as creators than as technicians, feeling like we’re gods of code, able to conjure up anything we can dream up, as long as we apply the necessary amount of effort to it.

While this is technically true, what it dangerously implies is that we need not consider the market’s appetite for the ideas we have in mind.

To what extent, as founders of new businesses, can we actually choose what we get to work on?

The market is king

We readers are enthralled by success stories of how companies like Segment managed to find product/market fit after enduring rounds of trial and tribulation. Rightfully so — it’s a great story with a happy ending!

“The market only pays for what the market wants to buy.”

But upon the conclusion of that story, one question remained unanswered for me: Does searching for product/market fit for a business necessarily mean that you have to relinquish the choice of what you end up working on?

The founders of Segment had to ditch their original ideas which weren’t working out for them, in favour of subsequent ideas that the market actually had a demand for, which allowed them to make money and survive (and now thrive).

It certainly seems like the market only pays for what the market wants to buy. Coming up with something new will not matter if the market has no need for it.

We’ve all heard countless examples of businesses that’ve pivoted in favour of continuing to exist and thrive, rather than crash and burn while sticking to its original ideals.

Slack, for example, started out as its founder’s attempt at making a game. Upon realising that the game was failing, the team salvaged the in-game chat system and repurposed it as a communication tool for work. In fact, that wasn’t Stewart Butterfield’s first failed attempt at making a game which led to something else altogether: that was how Flickr ended up being born too.

The evidence certainly seems to indicate that the reality of market wants will always eventually overrule a founder's initial intentions.

Know what’s realise-able

It might help to shift our perspectives and examine things from the other extreme where founders have successsfully executed on their crazy, original ideas.

Elon Musk is a name that comes to mind when you think of “people who have successfully forced through their vision of the future”. He’s successfully built a reusable space rocket company, an electric car company, and a renewable energy company, exactly like how he envisioned. Frankly, I think it’s kind of ridiculous how he has achieved all that; it makes you question if it’s really a science fiction story or a real life one.

Yet, if we dig a little deeper, even Elon wasn’t always able to execute on his vision like this. For instance, his original intention with the founding of x.com, before it ended up as PayPal, was to create an internet currency that would replace traditional state-backed currencies like the US dollar. History tells us it ended up differently than that, but it still amounted to an extremely desirable financial outcome for himself and the rest of the PayPal mafia.

“Product ideas should be closely intertwined with what's doable in reality.”

So, what changed in between? What led to him being able to establish successful, sustainable companies out of thin air from this dreams, basically at will? I would say a couple of things:

Firstly, as a founder and entrepreneur, he probably grew a lot wiser over time, accumulating experience in terms of knowing what’s doable and what isn’t—and hence better able to set more realistic goals from the beginning.

Secondly, as his career has progressed as an entrepreneur, he’s accumulated more and more resources, which get invested into his future companies. Besides money, I think another extremely valuable resource would include also a knowing a network of capable people form which he can build a good team. This helps his realm of what's possible expand dramatically.

And lastly, the amount of time and resource you spend beforehand researching and experimenting with the idea also helps. Elon spent two trips to Russia trying to buy a rocket over months before coming up with something remotely resembling anything doable — a spreadsheet of a bill of materials for building a rocket.

How many of us founders do planning and research work to that extent before embarking on our ventures?

Furthermore, I would also argue that Elon’s later ideas were also considerably more similar than not to existing ideas, than then-previous products he had created. People already bought hybrid cars, now he would turn them fully electric. Governments already launched satellites into space, now he would innovate on bringing down the cost involved.

We could examine Twitch from this angle too: real-time video streaming has been done by many others, but to do it exclusively for gamers might seem like it’s creating a whole new product at all (although it may certainly have created or legitimised a whole new live-gaming industry as a result of that).

These are products where product/market fit already were established beforehand, and the innovation is a 20% one, like from the Andrew Chen blog post, as described earlier. It's interesting to see how the 20% part that’s different, is so different that that alone is a substantial piece of what the whole product can be marketed around and what the companies stand for, such that it even looks like a whole new category altogether.

Product ideas should be closely intertwined with what's doable in reality.

Stubbornness/humility balance

As with the answers to most things, it isn’t a clear-cut yes or no whether or not we can really go into a new business fully expecting the idea to turn out like we envisioned. The answer probably like somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and is going to be different for each of us, depending on where and when each of us are at in terms of choosing to work on ideas that are compliant with reality.

“It’s important to know that you can be thoroughly remarkable by being just slightly original.”

Founders truly need the right balance of stubbornness to force issues through, and humility to recognise when something isn’t working, or will not work.

I feel that as a creator of something new, there’s an inherent want to build something original, as a result of wanting to be remarkable. No one wants to build something that’s unremarkable. The issue is, that the two are often mistakenly conflated to be one and the same.

It’s important to know that you can be thoroughly remarkable by being just slightly original.

3. Copying keeps things simple

Working on a product idea that's been done before also means that you can go at it with a greater confidence in knowing that your product is based on sound fundamentals. This gives you less areas of the business you have to come up with solutions for, reducing the amount of guesswork and number of rounds of trial-and-error you have to iterate through before being able to turn a profit with your business.

Take the path well-travelled

If you're a novice or first-time entrepreneur, there's another reason why you should be copying existing business ideas that a known to work instead of coming up with originals: it’s tough enough learning the ropes and trying to turn a profit — why make it harder on yourself going down an unproven route?

A part of why starting something new is so hard is because in its infancy, they’re so poorly defined that you don’t know where to start. In school, we’re accustomed to having a well-defined problem to solve and even a syllabus of what we should be studying, so it’s extremely rare that we get to practice defining the problem for ourselves. This is a huge stumbling for many, because of how we're simply not used to coming up with answers to a question that we have to form and ask ourselves.

There are many parts to a business that work together to create the end outcome, each of which entrepreneurs have to learn about and develop a mastery of. It doesn't help that you also kind of have to come up with the full, polished concept all at once. For example, a product's name is very closely tied to the brand of your product, which is a key representation of the product itself. The product itself and how it works is in turn very closely tied to your product's business and growth strategy. Businesses work best when every aspect of a business works together in a complementary fashion.

At least initially, avoid the ill-defined problems.

You don’t have to be your first customer

A commonly given piece of advice in the startup world is to solve problems that you already have, or to build something for yourself. The next best case being that you can build something for someone or a group of people whom you have close access to and can study easily and well.

It must be acknowledged that it’s definitely easier to design a good product well if you’re building within your own sphere of interest. Being distanced from the culture or audience you’re building for can cause a inhibiting lack of contextual knowledge on your part.

While building for yourself can be ideal if done right, one pitfall of taking this approach is that you could end up working on too original of an idea, building products that solve problems that only you uniquely have, or not a large enough market has. Personally, I’ve found that building products for others can work too.

“At least initially, avoid the ill-defined problems.”

This is as you’re first and foremost, above all else, an entrepreneur. Unless you’re building products for fellow entrepreneurs, it’s unlikely that you can build for yourself. Building only for yourself also severely limits what you’re able to build. So I would say to come at it with a different perspective: to build for groups of others on which you are on the fringe of, or have an association with.

When I first began working on WriteMapper, I must admit that I wasn’t much of a writer myself, nor did I use mind maps on a frequent basis. Fast forward to today, I’ve found an application I can use the software for on a frequent basis: writing on this blog.

Conclusion

In this essay, we've looked at how your product idea shouldn't be completely original, but instead be largely a copy of something that already exists. We've also examined strategies and methods for doing that, as well as further arguments for why you should be copying more than you think.

One quick thing to point out, reiterating a point made earlier: while your product idea shouldn't be completely original, this is not to say that you should present and market it as a copy of an existing product. Marketing and packaging your products are another art-form of their own; a subject I'll be writing about in a future post.

I do hope you've found this helpful — thank you for reading. You can subscribe to the blog using the form below if you would like to hear more from me.


This post was written with WriteMapper, a mind-mapping app available on macOS, Windows and iPad, which lets you turn your ideas into text documents in no time at all.